Women In Black

One mic: A man recites the words of an Islamic mystic in Shirin Neshat's "Turbulent"
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Stepping into "Turbulent," a video installation by the Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat, you're pulled in two directions at once. On one wall, a DVD projection shows a man standing before an auditorium full of young Muslim scholars in pressed white shirts. As they applaud politely, he begins to sing--liltingly at first, but gaining in force. It's an old song--the words are by the 13th-century mystic Rumi--and the man is sure of his melody. As he takes his bows, your attention leaps to a second screen at the opposite end of the gallery, where an otherworldly figure dressed all in black has been waiting silently.

When the woman begins to sing--she's facing away from us, toward the same auditorium, now empty and wreathed in shadow--her voice is a breathy, rhythmic chant. As the camera spins around her, the song takes on an almost savage quality: Her expression conveys a rapture both religious and erotic, a counterpoint to the man's coolly contained performance. After a final banshee keen, her song also resolves into silence, and the man and woman regard one another from their respective walls--his face frozen in disbelief, hers registering explosive release. The moment provokes a shiver of revelation: Here, as in all of Neshat's twilit, dreamily expressionistic pieces, the viewer is thrust, physically and psychologically, into the conflicted heart of Islam. And "Turbulent" seems to grow knottier and more enigmatic with reflection. Set in relief against Islam's current tempest, Neshat's ideas begin to catch fire.

Neshat, whose first career retrospective has its initial U.S. run at the Walker through September 8, reportedly conceived of "Turbulent" during a 1990 return trip to Iran--one of her first since emigrating to America in 1973 to attend college. During that visit, she came across a woman singing in the street. A crowd had gathered, though perhaps less out of appreciation than of morbid curiosity. Because women were forbidden from singing in public after Iran's 1979 revolution, she was risking grave punishment.

The incident embodies the central tension of Neshat's oeuvre. Under the pressure of militant Islam, the spectacle of a woman singing in the marketplace takes on cathartic import: It becomes a discharge of suppressed desire. And, like the woman's song, Neshat's work represents a potentially revolutionary threat to Iran's prevailing dogma. Despite blooming international acclaim, she has yet to film or exhibit her work in Iran.

Which isn't to say that Neshat's films are purely--or even primarily--political. Rather, as with the work of Abbas Kiarostami, what ignites these pieces is their openness to interpretation. "Turbulent" takes on distinct shades of meaning, for instance, depending on where the viewer's eyes alight. Likewise, Neshat's creations dance over the snares of Western feminist agitprop. The men and women in her work exist in a delicate equilibrium, separated by culture but bound by nature. In the exhibit catalog, the filmmaker Atom Egoyan--whose own hall-of-mirrors aesthetic identifies him as a kindred spirit--writes that Neshat's characteristic ambiguity stems from her experience as an exile: "Her work presents a unique balance between a world that is very old and one that is so new that it compulsively reinvents itself with alarming speed and recklessness." (This notion finds its fullest expression in 1999's "Soliloquy," in which Neshat films herself wandering through both crowded Middle Eastern cities and lonely American urban landscapes.)

What's perhaps most revolutionary about Neshat's work is how comfortably it accommodates ambivalence. Her art is about the politics of possibility. In "Rapture," for instance, the second piece in the triptych begun with "Turbulent," a straightforward parable of female liberation becomes a Daliesque dreamscape seemingly drawn from Islam's collective unconscious. Set on the same bleached terrain as many of Neshat's films (it's actually Morocco), "Rapture" finds a group of chanting men gathering among the minarets of a seaside fortress. Along the beach, meanwhile, a crowd of women dressed in black prepares to launch a dinghy into the slate-gray surf. As the men look on in wonder, the faceless and formless women take on the aspect of a flock of crows, seemingly ready to scatter into the skies. As in "Turbulent," Neshat's men exist within the strictures of Islamic culture; women enjoy the paradoxical freedom of invisibility.

In the artist's work, as much as in Islamic society at large, the chador is a powerful manifestation of this paradox. Far from being the silent prison imagined by westerners, the veil gives Neshat's female figures an archetypal stature. The women in "Rapture" might be the spectral after-image of antiquity. But the chador's dual nature--the word literally means "tent"--also reflects Neshat's ambivalence toward Islamic modernity. To cast off the veil is to become an exile. "Rapture" seems to be searching for a balance between, on one hand, the powerful pull of culture and community symbolized by the chador, and on the other, an equally urgent yearning for liberty. (Neshat will expand on this symbolic language in two talks, Wednesday, June 12 at the Basilica of St. Mary and Thursday, June 13 at the Walker. Neshat's appearance at the Walker will also involve the world premiere of Logic of the Birds, a video and live-performance piece, Thursday through Sunday, June 20 to 23.)

Neshat's latest film, 2001's "Passage," initially seems like a departure from earlier psychological allegories like "Rapture." Shot in color, with Philip Glass standing in for her usual musical collaborator (New York-based singer/composer Sussan Deyhim), the film opens with the camera gliding low over a vast plain of cracked rock gilded pale pink by the desert sunrise. While a funeral procession approaches bearing a shrouded bier, a huddled group of veiled women claw a grave out of the dust. The tableau, inspired by images of violence and mourning in Palestine, is both thrilling and apocalyptic.

Then, with one awesome stroke across the scarred land, Neshat turns the film into something far greater than political art; "Passage" becomes a ritual of purification. It provokes the same shiver as "Turbulent." Here at the edge of the grave, she suggests, is where the new world will begin.

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